Shabbat Miketz: light is seen only in darkness

The Shabbat of Hanukkah is nearly always Shabbat Miketz. The word miketz means “at the end of”, and in this context it refers to the end of a period of time – a dark time, with Joseph missing from his family and his home. Joseph is imprisoned in a dungeon as we begin the parashah, and back home a famine is ravaging the land. Everyone is starving: for freedom, for food – for love. 


This time of year is the darkest; like all ancient religious traditions, we have our festival of light now, to reassure us that there is light at the end of this darkness. If only it were as true that there is freedom at the end of every enslavement, nourishment at the end of every drought, and love waiting for us all.


The reason that this is not reliably true is not because G-d plays favorites, but because we do. Francis Moore Lappe showed years ago that there is enough food on this planet to feed us all if only we would treat Earth wisely, and each other with respect; in the case of love, also, we act as if there is a limit to love, and ration it to the deserving, the attractive, the pleasing. Enslavement both real and metaphorical traps so many who could be freed….


In the parashat hashavua for this week, Jacob’s sons will go down to Egypt seeking sustenance for their families. Why, the midrash asks, are they called “Joseph’s brothers” instead of “Jacob’s sons”?


In so doing, the Torah is signaling the beginning of a move from darkness toward light. The brothers will confront their brother, whom they betrayed, and, after great emotional upheaval, be reconciled with him, and in the nurturance of that moment, so many longings will be answered. 


Joseph’s brothers were afraid when they first met Joseph – afraid of what they did not know about him, afraid that he would be angry at them, and perhaps try to kill them. Especially in this dark time, we too are afraid of what might be lurking within that which is impenetrable to our sight. Like the brothers, we assume fear, anger, difficulty – and we add to the darkness in that assumption. 


In a midrash, it is pointed out that the eye is made up of a dark part (the iris) and a light part (the white of the eye), and that one sees only out of the dark part. Consider a dark room with a spotlight: only when one is in darkness can one see that there is light (if you are in the spotlight you cannot see what is in the dark). Thus it is in our lives: darkness is a necessary precondition to seeing, and not at all, necessarily, an impediment. We forget to look sometimes for the light in the darkness, but it is there.


These long nights are a time to admit that these long nights can be full of grief and sadness, to express it and comfort each other in it. Let us seek to answer each other’s longings, feed each other’s hopes, and free each other as we are able from the prison of our fears. Let us kindle light together – not in defiance of the darkness, but in recognition that it is only when we realize the nature of the darkness that we are in, that we can begin to see the light.

Shabbat VaYeshev: What Do You See in the Light?

One of my favorite English lines from an old siddur is from a Kaddish meditation: “in light we see; in light we are seen.” This kind of light is not only visible, of course; illumination can also be of the “aha” kind, when something suddenly clarifies in the mind. The universal illustration for that at one time was a light bulb suddenly illuminating over one’s head. Suddenly, that which was hidden is visible. We can see, and we are seen.

This week the parashat hashavua is called VaYeshev, “dwell”. It is the last time that the name of the parashah will be taken from a story about Jacob’s life; now the acts of his children become central. The narrative for the year of the Triennial Cycle begins with a story that seems tangential to the action, but has great power to illuminate:

Judah, son of Jacob, has a daughter in law, Tamar; she has been promised that she will marry Judah’s son, but Judah avoids fulfilling the promise. Tamar is hidden away in the tents of the women, where he can pretend not to see her. Recently after being widowed, he travels to Timnah for the sheep-shearing. By the side of the road he sees a veiled woman – the convention of the time was that prostitutes veiled themselves. He sleeps with her, unaware of who she is, gives her his signet and his staff, and then he travels home again, and continues with his life. 

Three months later Tamar is accused of having sex outside of marriage (an offense punishable by death for a woman in certain circumstances). “Let her be brought out and burned,” (Gen.38.24) says her father in law. “Wait a minute,” she says. “The father of the baby is the man who owns this signet and this staff.” And Judah admits that “she is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to Shelah my son.” (Gen.38.26) 

Judah hides from Tamar by pretending he cannot see her, and rationalizing that she’s probably fine.

Tamar hides from Judah by veiling herself, and the two darknesses kindle a great light, one that would have destroyed her if she had not been clever enough to grab that signet of his.

But the fire that he would have kindled against her becomes the catalyst for a moment of illumination. In it, he sees himself in disgust and her act as brave.

“In light we see, in light we are seen.” It may not be easy to like what we see, and there may be that which is immolated in the moment of truth – but in that moment we will also, inevitably, see the necessary way forward on the path of our lives more clearly, more honestly, and more meaningfully. We cannot always dwell in light; the clarity would be overwhelming for us, as the Zohar teaches. In the future, that great light – from which we will feel no need to hide – will once again shine on the righteous, and it will include us all. That’s the promise of the light that we yearn for, even as we flee, sometimes, from what it shows us.

Hanukkah is a time of light; may it also be a time of illumination, of clarity, and of understanding for you.

Shabbat VaYishlakh: A Personal Aliyah Moment

This week’s parashah is VaYishlakh, “he sent”. In it we find ourselves deep into the story of Jacob, the third of the Patriarchs. He has just survived a night struggle with an angel, and then a long-delayed anxious meeting with his brother Esau. In the verses just before we begin (since we are reading the 2nd third of the parashah this year according to our Triennial Cycle), Jacob has promised Esau he will come visit, and then immediately hurried in the opposite direction. 


This reunion of the twin brothers after twenty years must have caused them both a certain amount of emotional upheaval, yet we don’t hear about any effect on Jacob afterward, at least not directly. Rather, the three verses with which we start are peaceful:


יח  וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, בְּבֹאוֹ, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם; וַיִּחַן, אֶת-פְּנֵי הָעִיר.


18 Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and encamped before the city.

יט  וַיִּקֶן אֶת-חֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר נָטָה-שָׁם אָהֳלוֹ, מִיַּד בְּנֵי-חֲמוֹר, אֲבִי שְׁכֶם–בְּמֵאָה, קְשִׂיטָה.

19 He bought the parcel of ground, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of money.

כ  וַיַּצֶּב-שָׁם, מִזְבֵּחַ; וַיִּקְרָא-לוֹ–אֵל, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.  {ס}

20 He established an altar there, and called it El-elohe-Israel. 

Directly after these few words, Jacob’s life will again be full of upheaval, anger and tragedy. As he will tell Pharaoh many years from now, his years are short and full of pain. But here, in these three verses, we have a sense of serenity. Just like Abraham, he traveled from the East and bought a bit of ground upon which to pitch his tent. And just like both Abraham and Isaac, he built an altar. In effect, Jacob has just made aliyah: he has “gone up” to Israel from Paddam Aram.


In Jewish tradition, three verses are the minimum length of an aliyah, the ritual Torah reading which is preceded and followed by the Torah blessings. And here is the small insight that comes from this quiet moment in Jacob’s stressful, sad life: a moment of blessing is always possible. Our lives may feel as if we are reeling from shock to disappointment to urgency to hassle to, finally, sadness and stress. But if you can find a moment, one small moment during which you can stop and take a breath, it need not be very long – just long enough to feel the blessings that surround you despite the difficulties.


Try giving yourself this spiritual aliyah moment: three deep breaths. With the first, think of coming in peace – what is your wholeness? With the second, consider the grounding of your tent – where do you dwell? With the third, connect to your sense of the holy – what do you revere? 


And in that way, may you feel the blessing that precedes you and follows you, and keeps your soul safe in the world.

“Out of chaos He formed substance, making what is not into what is. He hewed enormous pillars out of ether that cannot be grasped.” – Sefer Yetzirah 2.6

“Out of chaos He formed substance, making what is not into what is. He hewed enormous pillars out of ether that cannot be grasped.” - Sefer Yetzirah 2.6

Note the uncanny resemblance of these “enormous pillars” to the Hebrew letter shin which is used to indicate God’s protective Name Shaddai. The website Students for the Exploration and Development of Space explains: These eerie, dark pillar- like structures are actually columns of cool interstellar hydrogen gas and dust that are also incubators for new stars. The pillars protrude from the interior wall of a dark molecular cloud like stalagmites from the floor of a cavern. They are part of the “Eagle Nebula”…a nearby star forming region 7,000 light-years away in the constellation Serpens. (

Shabbat VaYetze: Rediscovering the Power of Leah and Rachel

 In this week’s parashah we read about the “baby wars” between Leah and Rachel as each try to outdo each other in giving their shared husband sons. It’s easy to dismiss as a misogynistic satire of two women fighting for their husband’s attention, but that’s only the top layer of this fascinating story. A closer look offers deeper insights.


Consider: Jacob was a follower of his father’s and grandfather’s G-d. But what was the focus of Rachel’s and Leah’s reverence? Note Leah’s words upon the birth of her second son. She exclaims b’oshri! which has been explained as a form of ashrey, “joy”. Leah names her son Asher (Gen. 30.13), and some scholars see a note of thanks to the Goddess Asherah in both the exclamation and the name.


Leah and Rachel name their children when they are born. (So does Eve.) When the world is created, G-d brings all the animals to Adam, and he names them. The power of naming is akin to the power of creating; to name something is to bring it fully into existence. When it comes to new human beings, the power of their names in is the mouths of their mothers. 


What other powers did our Matriarchs wield, of which no hint has remained in the final redaction of our Torah text? And what else is buried in our Torah text, between the lines, half-hidden, covered over by later re-shapings of meaning and context?


My teacher, Dr. Byron Sherwin, taught me that everything a feminist needs to argue against Jewish patriarchy is already there in our ancient sources. One need only know how to look. So let’s look at words and their power in Judaism.


As the Psalmist has noted, clumsy human language is not suited to G-d’s praise; yet we, described in Jewish medieval philosophy as “the creature that speaks,” keep trying to name our sense of kedushah, holiness, and its Source. By definition, the One G-d is not defined by borders, by tribal ethnicity, by age or politics or nature; the irony of arrogating kedushah to an exclusive group is that it empties the term of meaning. Here the case of gender is enlightening.  As feminist theologians have pointed out, naming G-d “he” at the expense of the use of the word “she” defines G-d as less than All: and this is the basic definition of idolatry, i.e. revering something less than G-d as G-d.


Restriction of kedushah by gender, or by any other means, is not a religious statement; rather, it is an example in antiquity as in modernity of a social expression, or even political use, of the concept of the holiness of G-d. Such definition suits limited purposes. To the extent that feminism stands as a corrective to patriarchy, and leads us toward the equal cherishing of all aspects of creation, it re-captures an ancient cultural weighting of the feminine. Life brings change; cultural perspectives come and go;  each time, we must bring careful thinking about texts we respect and so expect to contain more than meets the eye. Each new challenge, met thoughtfully, can help us find a new balance between opposites that need each other to exist at all. Only the embrace of opposites brings one closer to the One Source of All Being.

Shabbat Toldot: Digging Down to Rise Up

This week’s parashat hashavua describes the difficulty Isaac encounters in establishing himself in the aftermath of his father’s death. Apparently the locals do not respect him as they did his father. 

 Isaac dug again the wells of water that were dug in the days of Abraham his father, for the Philistines had stopped them up after Abraham’s death. He called them after the names his father had called them….the herdsmen of Gerar fought with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying “the water is ours.” He called that well Esek (“contention”)….they dug another well, and they fought for that too, and he called it Sitnah (hatred). He left there and dug another well, and no one fought over it. He called it Rehovot (“wide open spaces”). (Gen.26.18-22).

This is one of the few stories the Torah preserves of Isaac as an adult. In a well, he is establishing his own relationship to the Land of Israel. There is a hint in this story of the perennial Jewish experience in the land of Israel: esek, sitnah, and finally, we hope, rehovot (which is the name of an early modern Zionist Israeli town). 

It is striking that Isaac tries to re-establish his father’s wells, and has to be pushed into digging his own. In Torah study, “digging down” is a common metaphor for seeking insight. Here, Isaac tries to understand his life by following his father’s footsteps, and repeating his acts (he too will journey to escape famine, he too will call his wife his sister, he too will have children who need to be separated). 

But re-digging his father’s wells does not work. In order to understand his own life and live it, he has to find water, and wisdom, on his own. 

What is the way to establish oneself, on one’s own, having moved past the shadow of one’s parents? What is the way to dig which leads to blessing? How do overcome all that we inherit, and find it for ourselves? Where is that living water of wisdom?


Sometimes, perhaps, instead of a great sea

It is a narrow stream running urgently


far below ground, held down by rocky layers

the deeds of mother and father, helpless sooth-sayers


of how our life is to be, weighted by clay,

the dense pressure of thwarted needs, the replay


of old misreadings, by hundreds of feet of soil,

the gifts and wounds of the genes, the short or tall


shape of our possibilities, seeking

and seeking a way to the top, while above, running


and stumbling this way and that on the clueless ground

another seeker clutches a dowsing-wand


which bends, then lifts, then straightens, everywhere,

saying to the dowser, it is there, it is not there,


and the untaught dowser believes, does not believe,

and finally simply stands on the ground above.


Till a sliver of stream finds a crack and makes its way

slowly, too slowly, through rock and earth and clay.

 (excerpted from “The Stream”, Mona Van Duyn, Letters from a Father; NY: Athenaum, 1982)


Shabbat is for memory and for musing. On this Shabbat, let memory come to you as water, bringing you closer to the wisdom of our parents that is not inherited until we dig down for ourselves.